Believe it or not, this is our 5th year doing both the preseason and playoff roundtables on Faceoff-Factor. The best part of covering hockey in Pittsburgh is the fantastic hockey community. While we weren’t able to fit all the great writers in the city into this single piece, there’s no shortage of great hockey minds covering this team both in and out of the Pittsburgh region.

Let’s welcome this year’s participants.

Tony Ferrante of The Confluence – recently out of retirement and back in action.

Sean Leahy of Yahoo’s! Puck Daddy

Tecmo over at PSAMP

tPB Derek of The Pensblog

Eric Majeski of Lets Go Pens

Jimmy Rixner of Pensburgh

Joe Depto of The Pens Nation

Brian Metzer of From The Point

Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Mike Colligan of The Hockey Writers

Let’s get straight into this years questions.

1. The Atlantic division is, once again, a giant gauntlet this year. In the scope of the division as it stands, where do you rank the Penguins, and who presents the biggest challenge to them in a shortened race for the division title?

Tony Ferrante: I put the Flyers first, with the Pens and Rangers tied for 2nd. I don’t see where the Flyers have weakened to the point where either the Rangers or Pens should be ranked ahead of them.

Sean Leahy: As always, the Atlantic is going to be a beast. It was no surprise that four of the five teams posted 100-plus point seasons last year. The Rangers are loaded from top to bottom and adding Rick Nash only makes them stronger. Philly is always going to be Philly and one day they’ll have their goaltending situation figured out. New Jersey might take a bit of a dip losing Parise, but a shortened season could be good for Martin Brodeur. The Islanders will likely finish at the bottom again, but they’ll continue on their slow steady pace back to respectability.

The Pens will challenge the Rangers for the division crown again. I can see them once again finishing a close second and tying up the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Tecmo: Man, the shortened schedule is gonna have some kinda impact on this season. I mean the Pens play only 4 games against both the Flyers and Devils. 5 against the Rangers and Isles. The Pens went 2-4 against Philly last year. We’ll say that translates to 1-3 this season using unarguable PSAMP mathematics. Less chances to lose, but less chances at bigtime wins against rivals. There’s only so few games, The Pens will have to take advantage of 5 against the Islanders, and be thankful that 2 games of the Devils trap are out the window. And yet everyone else in the division who only plays 4 against the Devils gets the same advantage. Still, as my annual homer pick, the Pens take the division based on Malkin’s flawless transition from the KHL back to NHL life. James Neal ends poverty and Sid gets back to greatness. The Rags will stick around near the top but anyone that trusts them to do anything is a joke.

tPB Derek: Rangers, Rangers, RANGERS. What a team. Johnny Torts could change Rick Nash’s career. Richards, Gaborik too. Yikes.

Eric Majeski: Rangers will be strong defensively thanks to Tortorella, Lundqvist, and an impressive blueline. Richards, Nash, and Gaborik will handle the heavy lifting on offense, getting support from Callahan, Stepan, and Kreider. I think the division title goes down to the final week between them and the Penguins. The Pens imploded in the playoffs, but were tied for most wins in the regular season without Crosby.

Jimmy Rixner: On paper, I think it’s the Rangers #1 then there’s a little gap to the Penguins, then a little gap to the Flyers, then a big gap to the Devils then a really big gap to the Islanders. The short schedule will bunch things up, but even in 48 games I see the cream (NYR, Pens) rising to the top and fighting for the #1 seed in the East, the loser of that getting the #4 seed, and the Flyers probably getting #5 or at worst #6 seed. It seems dangerous to write off the Devils, but that’s exactly what I’m doing. Avoiding the 4/5 first-round matchup is probably a paramount issue. In my opinion, the Penguins — losers of three straight playoff series — NEED to win the division, get a high seed and a more favorable matchup to restore their playoff confidence.

Joe Depto: Winning the Atlantic division, as everyone knows, is a tough task in a conventional 82 game schedule. Playing in a condensed 48 game schedule? It could be nastier than ever. The Pens’ world class talent will keep them in the discussion to win it all season long, and the addition of Tomas Vokoun will only benefit them further as back to back games become more prevalent than ever. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers are arguably the deepest team in the NHL and look poised to take the Atlantic by storm. If the Pens can effectively answer the numerous question marks on their blue line, they will compete with New York. The team’s ceiling is the division crown and I see their basement as a third place finish behind New Jersey. Ultimately, I think second place is a very realistic expectation.

Brian Metzer: In looking at the Atlantic, it is likely going to be one of the toughest divisions in hockey to win during this shortened season. I do believe that the Penguins will compete with the Flyers for the top spot. That isn’t to take anything away from the New Jersey Devils or New York Rangers, who are icing still icing impressive line-ups, but the two Pennsylvania teams are bringing back a number of familiar faces and have utilized the lockout to get healthy. The two teams also boast the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Claude Giroux, who are the types of talents that can help a team win plenty of games in a short period of time. At the end of the day, if the Penguins can solidify defensively and get some good goaltending from Marc Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun, they have the offensive talent to come away with the Atlantic Division crown.

Josh Yohe: The Penguins and Rangers will battle for the Atlantic Division crown. Philadelphia has serious problems with goal prevention and, while still a playoff team, doesn’t strike me as a legitimate Eastern Conference contender. New Jersey never replaced Zach Parise and will struggle to make the postseason. The Islanders are better than people realize, but not a playoff team.

Look for the Penguins and Rangers to be neck-and-neck for the No. 1 seed in the East. The Rangers are the NHL’s most balanced team and, while they can’t match Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in star power, they are better defensively than the Penguins. I’ll give the Rangers the nod, with the Penguins once again locked in as the No. 4 seed. But this one could go either way. (I change my mind on this every day.)

Mike Colligan: I’ve read a handful of Atlantic Division previews and I’m surprised at how few are picking the Penguins to come out on top. They were neck and neck with the Rangers last season and played most of the season without Sidney Crosby. They were almost unstoppable down the stretch. The Rangers will definitely be tough with the addition of Rick Nash but I think Pittsburgh is as good as any team in the league this year. New Jersey and Philadelphia will take a step back and the Islanders, despite underrated improvement, will still have trouble surviving in the Atlantic.

2. 2. The addition of Tomas Voukoun will be invaluable in the face of a crammed season. How many games do you expect him to get, and where would you rank the Penguins duo of goalies among their NHL peers?

Ferrante: I’d say with a 48 game regular season with 7 back-to-back games and many times with 3 games in 4 nights, I’d say he gets about 10 games. The Fleury/Vokoun combination is easily in the Top 3, maybe even at the very top, of the NHL.

Leahy: I can see Dan Bylsma giving him around 15-20 games. That’s more than enough to keep Marc-Andre Fleury fresh for the playoffs and to give Vokoun enough games where if he earn (or lose) Bylsma’s confidence in him. We saw how much Bylsma lost faith in Brent Johnson last year.

The Fleury/Vokoun tandem is definitely one of the tops in the league. You have a Cup-winning netminder who’s still young paired up with a veteran who’s put up decent numbers wherever he’s gone. This will be the best team Vokoun’s played on during his career and with a 2-year deal, he’ll be hungry to help the Penguins win another Cup.

Tecmo: As long as Vokoun doesn’t have the season-opening stretch that Brent Johnson had last year, the goaltending situation will rival any in the league. And by “rival” I mean “will be way better than.” Vokoun is only a year (albeit an extended year) from being Washington’s big name goalie signing at the beginning of the season. If he performs even half as well as he did in just about every game he played against the Pens as a Florida Panther, times will be good. It’ll be interesting to see how often Bylsma goes to Vokoun after seeing MAF’s late-season shakiness the past couple of seasons. And with such a short season, we’re already in the playoff stretch. Vokoun might get upwards of 15 games because the Pens need to see what he can still do and there’s only so much time to find out. 15 games is almost as many as Brent Johnson played last (full) season amidst injury and poor play, so MAF will have no reason to collapse as bad as he did last year.

tPB Derek: Vokoun will see 15-20 games. The Penguins duo is going to be really good. Compared with other teams in their division it looks really good. The potential for the duo is limitless.

Majeski: Assuming no injuries, I think Vokoun ends up in the range of 15-20. I’ll go 18 for the sake of specificity. League-wide they have to be up there, assuming each plays to their capabilities. How many other teams have two #1 guys? Maybe St. Louis and Vancouver?

Rixner: The Penguins might have the best tandem in net, but since only one goalie at a time can play, it’s of no real value to me. It’s better to have one lights-out, Jonathan Quick-type goalie than two above-average ones. I’m excited to see what Vokoun can do, and I think Fleury can be at his best when someone else is pushing him- it’s probably no coincidence Fleury’s best career stretch came in the spring of 2008 when Ty Conklin was playing very well. Ideally, Fleury gets about 30-32 games, Vokoun gets 16-18 and you get MAF ready and focused for the playoffs. Once the games count, I think you show Fleury “hey, you’re the guy” and you stick to that. If he starts floundering like Games 2 and 3 of the 2012 playoffs, you pull him. Until then, it’d be foolish not to ride the goalie who played so well in 2008 and 2009 to lead the Pens to the Cup finals.

Depto: The Pens have a number of back to back games on their schedule in the shortened season, but I expect Vokoun to play a very different role than a backup typically would in a convoluted schedule like this. I’m going to estimate that Vokoun starts 15-20 games this season. It would be easy to pick a 50/50 split, given the talent of both netminders, but I think having Vokoun in the locker room will bring out the best in Fleury and I’m expecting MAF to have one of his best seasons to date. I have no reservations labeling the duo of Fleury and Vokoun as the best in the NHL.

Metzer: Some folks around the hockey world might have scratched their heads a bit when Ray Shero brought Tomas Vokoun into the fold back in July, but he looks pretty shrewd today. Having two goaltenders capable of starting at the NHL level will be invaluable during this lockout shortened season. According to Dan Bylsma, Marc Andre Fleury will still get the bulk of the games, but Vokoun will push him and get his opportunities. The split should end up looking something like Fleury notching 30-32 starts, while Vokoun picks up 18-20. The Penguins have researched this situation and have come to find that the teams that were most success during the 1995 lockout shortened season were the ones who didn’t have to ride one goaltender the entire way.

As for where this tandem ranks among their NHL peers? If both guys play up to their capability, this goaltending tandem should have no problem finishing with a goals against average and save percentage that ranks them in the top seven in the league – top five might be pushing it a bit.

Yohe: Vokoun has more career wins than Marc-Andre Fleury, a better save percentage and a better goals against average. Does this mean he’s better than Fleury? Of course not. Does this mean Fleury better get off to a good start? Yes. The Penguins were extremely unhappy with Fleury following the Philadelphia series last spring. They acquired him to push Fleury, and that’s like what will happen. But look for Vokoun to get 16 starts.

Colligan: During the lockout, the Penguins did some analysis to see how goaltenders were used in the 48-game season in 1994-95. They found that the most successful teams had a starter than played around 30 games and a backup that played 18-20. I would expect the Penguins to adopt a similar 30/18 split — assuming Fleury is able to regain his regular season form from last year. As far as the rest of the league is concerned, the only teams with comparable duos are Vancouver (Schneider and Luongo) and Los Angeles (Quick and Bernier). I don’t see either tandem staying together long-term.

3. What part of this team as it’s currently assembled concerns you the most?

Ferrante: The defense, and nothing else is even close. My real concern is how this group of defensemen has actually been playing DEFENSE, not their offensive attributes. It would be nice for them to not hang Fleury out to dry again.

Leahy: At the moment, production from the depth. That’s what helps you win Stanley Cups. Can Matt Cooke revive his choir boy/goal scoring routine of a year ago? Will Tyler Kennedy regress again? Can guys like Eric Tangradi, Beau Bennett and Dustin Jeffrey step in and contribute right away? It remains to be seen.

Tecmo: Tough question. As I’m writing this (Monday afternoon), the Pens just worked on their Power Play for the first time, with James Neal at the point, which is different enough to make me not choose the PP. Neal has the shot, and can collapse quite quickly. Who knows if this’ll be the cure-all the PP has looked for, but I’ll take the sudden change as I’m writing this as a sign and lay my concerns on the defense. I’m anxious to see how Robert Bortuzzo plays, I’ve been able to take in a number of Wilkes-Barre games sitting on the glass over the past year, and Bortuzzo has progressed nicely and been one of my favorite players to watch. Shero obviously dumped Michalek to avoid any post-lockout cap issues, and he wasn’t nearly as big a worry as guys like Paul Martin and Ben Lovejoy. Can the young guys step up? Who is gonna be that shutdown-type guy, a guy like Michalek that you’d let shadow Ovechkin in a big game late in the year? The addition of Vokoun won’t make much of a difference if he’s facing 50 shots every fourth game.

tPB Derek: The defense. The top four is okay. All of a sudden though, there is no shot-blocking shutdown D. Paul Martin has a ton of pressure on him, and Kris Letang needs to find his happy place. If the top 4 is good enough , fine. The bottom pairing has literally cost the Penguins in THREE straight post seasons. The Pens are hedging their bets on Depres and a mix of Engo, Lovejoy, etc. This isn’t good, and it will come back to haunt them.

Majeski: Team-wide defense, especially the top 4 defensemen. Letang is the clear-cut #1, but Orpik’s coming off a down year, Martin’s yet to really settle in as a Penguin, and Niskanen has never been counted on a top 4 role before.

Rixner: Easily the defense. Kris Letang can have consistency and decision-making issues, and he missed large chunks of the season last year with concussion problems. Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin both had poor individual seasons last year and there’s no obvious replacement for the traded Zbynek Michalek. I like Matt Niskanen, but he’s been shielded from tough minutes and used wisely by the coaches to put him in position to succeed. I don’t think Ben Lovejoy or Deryk Engelland stand a chance if they’re not totally protected with easy minutes against the weakest competition possible. Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo are accomplished AHL’ers, but unproven at the NHL level. Simon Despres is a wildcard, but is 21 years old and largely inexperienced. The Pens might have to win a lot of games 4-3 this season.

Depto: I’m sure I won’t be the only one to express concerns over the 2013 Penguins blue line in this discussion. To put it succinctly, the play on the back-end needs to improve drastically for the team to tap into its’ true potential. The shortened season and lack of depth will place more pressure on Kris Letang than ever. Will he remain mentally focused and physically healthy throughout the rigorous schedule? Was Matt Niskanen’s strong 2011-12 season a fluke or a precursor to a breakout season? Can Paul Martin finally become the player that Ray Shero believed in when he signed him to a substantial contract in 2010? What will the team’s bottom pairing look like and how much of a liability with it be this season? All, not simply one or two of these questions, need positive answers this season for the Penguins to bring another cup back to Pittsburgh.

Metzer: I am a bit concerned with the defense. Yes they are bringing back Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin, but are Deryk Engelland, Ben Lovejoy, Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo going to be able to offset the minutes that were gobbled up by Zbynek Michalek last season, as well as fill out the bottom pairing? I am not so sure. There are no guarantees that Simon Despres will get a chance to start the season with the big squad based on the waiver implications of some of the previously mentioned names, so I would assume that Ray Shero will be scouring the waiver wire and or trade market to find a capable body or two as we move through the early stages of the season.

Yohe: There is only one aspect of this team that concerns me: The blue line.

Kris Letang is truly great, but is truly injury prone. Brooks Orpik remains solid, but is aging. Paul Martin has been nothing short of a disaster. Matt Niskanen is a great No. 5 defenseman. Is he a No. 4? Deryk Engelland was a great No. 6 defenseman last year. Can he do it again? Ben Lovejoy has potential. But can he put it all together? Simon Despres has great potential. But is he still out of shape?

Yikes. That’s a lot of questions. If the Penguins want to win a Stanley Cup, they better make a deal at some point before the April 3 deadline. Lots of good parts here, but a defensive-minded, top-four guy is badly needed.

Colligan: My concern is defense on the penalty kill. The Penguins can survive without Zbynek Michalek at even strength, but I worry that his absence on the penalty kill will leave quite a hole. Matt Niskanen or Robert Bortuzzo could be solutions to that problem, but I haven’t seen enough of them on the penalty kill at the NHL level to feel comfortable at this point.

4. Looking around the rest of the league, is there anyone that strikes you as a dark horse candidate to make noise in the race for the Stanley Cup?

Ferrante: Even though not a lot of people are talking about them, Detroit will be a Cup candidate until Datsyuk and Zetterberg retire.

Leahy: As a dark horse, I like Carolina in the East. Really liked what they did over the summer bringing Jordan Staal and Alex Semin. They’ll likely need to improve on their defense if they want to contend, but GM Jim Rutherford made it known this summer that the Canes are ready to contend.

Tecmo: The Stars. I like Double J there more than I did in Philly aside from just the geographical blood-hate. Anze Kopitar and Loui Eriksson have long been my “these guys’ teams are gonna be a force when these guys put it together” players, and with Anze going nuts and getting the Cup last year, he’s officially off that list. Loui is a monster. The Stars haven’t been great, missing the playoffs the past few years. Shortened season might help.

tPB Derek: If things go right, look out for the Carolina Hurricanes. The Staal brothers and Semin will bring some big boy NHL noise to the Canes. Jeff Skinner is money. If Cam Ward gets hot look out.

Majeski: Anything is possible in a short season, so I don’t think much would shock me. Even a terrible team like Columbus is better than they were when they last played. Sure, they’d need breaks to become a playoff team, but that isn’t unheard of.

Rixner: Unlike most, I’m not a big believer in St. Louis. I think the best teams will be the ones with a strong, young nucleus that haven’t made a lot of changes in the offseason. Look for Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, NY Rangers and Vancouver to be the top teams (in no order) in the regular season. If you really pushed me for a true dark-horse, I’d go out on a limb and say we know Steven Stamkos can drive the offensive engine. Maybe new faces Matt Carle and Anders Lindback can solidify the back-end enough to get Tampa into the playoffs and win a round or two.

Depto: I’m not sure whether or not the Washington Capitals qualify as a dark horse candidate, but I do think the Caps are ready to thrive under new head coach Adam Oates. I’m expecting a breakout season from Marcus Johansson, a return to form season from Alex Ovechkin, and I see a Holtby/Neuvirth pair (both are up for new contracts at season’s end) in line to become a substantial asset for that club. I also think the Carolina Hurricanes are very close to joining the discussion in the east, but I wonder how much Tuomo Ruutu’s injury will bother them.

Metzer: The Carolina Hurricanes aren’t all that far removed from a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals and they made a number of key acquisitions during the off-season, including the trade for Jordan Staal. Those moves combined with Cam Ward and some youngsters that are taking huge strides forward for them could put them back in the conversation. On the other side of the league, the Edmonton Oilers are probably still a couple years removed from making a serious run at a Stanley Cup, but they have one of the finest collections of young talent in the league and it isn’t hard to envision them making the types of leaps forward that the Penguins did soon after acquiring Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Yohe: Washington is an intriguing dark horse in the Eastern Conference. Look for the new Capitals coach, Adam Oates, to make a real difference. Alex Ovechkin isn’t going to have another awful season, right? And this team has actually learned how to play defense. I don’t think I’d want to play them in the playoffs.

In the west, everyone will want to point to Edmonton. The Oilers might be a playoff team, but they aren’t a contender yet. Keep an eye on Anaheim. The Ducks aren’t great, but they’ve got talent. They’re better than you think.

Colligan: The Washington Capitals. It’s hard to believe that this team could be a dark horse, but they aren’t being mentioned very much and I think they’ll be in the mix for the Presidents Trophy this season. The Caps are a team built to outscore opponents and I think management/coaches abandoned that mentality too quickly in recent years. Adam Oates will find a way to get the most out of Alex Ovechkin and we’ll see the Caps return to their high-flying days.

5. And, as always, our prop question. Who scores the first goal for the Penguins this season?

Ferrante: Oh, let’s say Tyler Kennedy, just to piss everyone off.

Leahy: Probably going to be Evgeni Malkin, but to mix it up let’s say Beau Bennett.

Tecmo: Hard to bet against James Neal. But having watched him in WB-S and being a total Beau Bennett fanboy, if he makes the team I’ll go wildcard and pick Beau. He doesn’t make the team, James Neal scores the first goal at approximately 400 mph. Go Pens.

tPB Derek: Matt Cooke.

Majeski: I want to troll Derek here, but I couldn’t decide if Kennedy or Tangradi would be a better option, so I’ll go the opposite way and say Dustin Jeffrey. Assuming the Pens sign him to a contract, that is.

Rixner: At this point, let me puff out my chest and remind everyone that last year I correctly gave you James Neal scoring on the powerplay on an Evgeni Malkin assist. This year, it’s like taking candy from a baby, the answer is so obvious. On Saturday, the Penguins play where their season ended eight and a half months ago – Philadelphia. Sidney Crosby has had all this time to dwell on that, and on national television in the first game of the year, Sid’s going to score in the first period.

Depto: I’m going to go with Pascal Dupuis here. His scoring streak to end the season last year will have him hungry to silence the raucous Philadelphia crowd on Saturday, and I’m expecting Sidney Crosby to get off to a fast start and never look back – something that can only benefit Dupuis’s chances.

Metzer: Always a tough prediction since it isn’t always obvious, but I have to go with Sidney Crosby this year. The guy should be shot out of a cannon when he hits the ice on Saturday.

Yohe: The first goal of the Penguins’ season will happen at 6:12 the first period in Philadelphia. Crosby (Dupuis, Letang)

Colligan: Chris Kunitz. And if there’s any carryover from last year, it’ll probably be disallowed.

Again, thanks to everyone that participated. See these guys back for more, among others, for the playoff preview. Thanks to you, the readers, for allowing us to do this for five years.

Post your answers below and get in on the conversation!